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Salmon Kings playing out the string Add to ...

They are a team without a future, the team that won't go away quietly.

Their owner has already purchased a Western Hockey League franchise and happily announced it will be playing games in Victoria next season. Sponsors are being attracted. Season tickets will soon be sold, but not for the Victoria Salmon Kings.

They'll be out of business the moment their postseason ends, which won't be for awhile yet because on the same day their owner, RG Properties, welcomed the WHL back to the B.C. capital, the East Coast Hockey League Salmon Kings scored yet another dramatic win, this one in overtime.

For weeks, the Salmon Kings have played in the shadow of oblivion and never played better. It's made their story and improbable run seem like something out of the movie Slap Shot, in which Paul Newman tried to keep the Chiefs alive despite knowing they were doomed. It's a theme not lost on the Salmon Kings' coach and players.

"It's exactly like Slap Shot," Mark Morrison, the fifth-year head coach and general manager, said Thursday. "It comes up a lot because this is it for us here."

The Salmon Kings' plight began to turn bad when the WHL decided it had to put a team in Victoria before the American Hockey League did. Ultimately, the Chilliwack Bruins were sold to RG Properties and will be relocated to the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, which has been home to the Salmon Kings since their inception in 2006.

According to Morrison, it wasn't until this past Christmas that talk of the WHL's arrival took on a serious tone. Then, little more than a month ago, things turned darker when it was loudly speculated the WHL was coming for the 2011-12 season. That could have spelled the end for the Salmon Kings right there.

Morrison acknowledged he was worried how his players would react.

"As coach, you've made promises. To get better players, I've made verbal commitments to guys we wanted back for a second year," he explained. "You don't know what the guys in the room are saying - 'What an A-hole. He said this and did that and now there's no team here next year.' "

But rather than bemoan their fate, the players decided to make a stand. Instead of coming apart, they committed to a common goal. As assistant captain Rob Hennigar told the Victoria media earlier this week: "The time is now. We don't look to the future past this moment." He said that right below the team's motto painted on a dressing room wall: "We will … sacrifice."

There's another motivational pitch in the Salmon Kings' dressing room, one recently added. It's a headline from the Victoria Times Colonist that reads, "With WHL looming, tonight could be the Salmon Kings' swan song." The headline ran before Game 2 of the ECHL's first-round playoff series between the seventh-seeded Salmon Kings and the second-ranked Bakersfield Condors.

The Salmon Kings won the best-of-five series 3-1 to advance against the Utah Grizzlies, the team they beat in overtime Wednesday to grab a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven match-up.

For Morrison, his team's run is especially emotional. He played his junior hockey for the Victoria Cougars and helped them to a WHL championship. He was drafted in the third round by the New York Rangers in 1981 and appeared in just 10 NHL games. It was that stint as a professional that cost him his chance to play for Team Canada at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

Being told he couldn't represent his country wasn't as hurtful then as it has become over time. Looking back, Morrison said it was a lost chance to show what he could do. Seeing his players embrace their moment has proved both satisfying and special.

"We've had our personal meetings as a group," Morrison said. "We talk, not just about hockey, but about how we feel - 'Are we angry? How do we channel that?' I feel for them. In this league, you don't get a lot of continuity. Players come and go. But these guys have a chance to do well as a team right now. I'm very proud of how they've handled this. It's been something to watch."

And the watching continues. The Salmon Kings can eliminate Utah on Friday in Victoria then prepare for the Western Conference final, likely against the top-ranked Alaska Aces. On paper, the series shouldn't be close. But on the ice, where the Salmon Kings are thriving, the team with no future is keen to go the distance.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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